Lunch at Bottega in Birmingham, Alabama

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One meal. ONE MEAL. That’s all I really had time for when I went to Birmingham, Alabama this past weekend for Food Blog South. I got in late Friday night, spoke Saturday morning, had time for lunch (my ONE MEAL) then had the keynote, book-signing and after party to attend that night before flying back to L.A. the next morning.

I polled folks on Twitter and received many terrific suggestions; unfortunately, most of them were closed for lunch. Hot and Hot Fish Club: closed for lunch. Chez Fonfon: closed for lunch (at least on Saturdays). One suggestion, though, wasn’t only open for lunch, it seemed to be walking distance (more on that in a second) from my hotel. I settled upon Frank Stitt’s celebrated restaurant, Bottega.

According to Google Maps, Bottega was only two miles from my hotel. I could walk two miles, easy.

Only, based on the stunned reactions of the Birmingham residents I talked to afterwards, Birmingham’s not really a walking city. I learned that lesson the hard way: while tracking my progress on my phone, I almost stepped on a dead raccoon. That is not a joke.

But you know what? Despite the difficulty of traversing dirt paths near highways, I enjoyed my walk. Look at all the local color I soaked in:

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At last, I made it to the restaurant and scored a seat by the window.

I should tell you here that, a long time ago, I purchased Frank Stitt’s Southern Table (incidentally published by my same publisher) and fell in love with it. It effortlessly mashed up the sensibilities of a European chef with the good natured-charm of a Southerner. And that’s precisely what happens at Bottega; it’s Italy meets Birmingham.

The room reflects that: big windows, lots of sunshine, a poster for Orangina.

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From my seat, I could soak in the whole room which was peopled with Southerners out for an upscale Saturday lunch. Some folks were dressed to the nines; I was dressed more to the sixes and sevens (name that musical!) but no one seemed to mind.

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Enough with the atmosphere… you want to know about the food. The first thing that came out was warm focaccia and a bowlful of olive oil:

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Point: Italy. But I wanted some Southern goodness mashed up with the Italian fare–after all, I was in Birmingham–so I ordered a pizza with Benton’s Country Ham and ricotta. But first, a salad.

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This salad may look simple, but it was really accomplished. The barest amount of dressing–undetectable vinegar–with fresh gem lettuce, toasted walnuts, crisp apples and Roquefort. I’ve had salads like this before but what made this one stand out was the subtlety and the provenance of the ingredients. Everything tasted like the best version of that thing you could imagine, which is the highest compliment you can pay a salad. I did have some trouble eating it, though: instead of cutting up the lettuce, I just went for it and pieces of walnut and cheese went flying everywhere. Apologies to the woman in the hat who went home wearing a piece of my heirloom apple.

And now for the moment you’ve been waiting for, the apotheosis of Stitt’s cuisine, a pizza made with Benton’s country ham, ricotta cheese, a fried egg and fresh arugula:

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Take a look at that. You probably won’t be eating that anywhere else in the world and that’s just the kind of thing I want to eat when I travel. The ham was pure South: salty, smoky, meaty. The balance, again, was masterful, though the crust was slightly less-than-compelling. It’s not that it was a bad crust–how could it be with such a talented chef in command–it’s just that it wasn’t a memorable crust. The outside crackled like a good crust should; the insides, though, were kind of just there.

That’s my only critique.

And who cares about crust and insides when there’s THIS for dessert?

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That, my friends, is Bottega’s famous 7-layer coconut pecan cake. It’s a wonder, a technical marvel, 100% Southern and 100% terrific. I ate three bites and called it quits.

I also called a cab. As much as I enjoyed my walk there, this meal put me in a food coma and I’d need to go back to my hotel to watch Cash Cab and figure skating before the evening’s festivities. But I’m so glad my one meal in Birmingham happened at Frank Stitt’s Bottega. It’s a one-of-a-kind restaurant you can’t imagine existing anywhere else.

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